A few weeks ago, Zenith introduced one of their latest re-edition timepieces and luckily for us, we were able to get our hands on an example to get up close and personal to see if this recreated El Primero was all we expected it to be? As you know, the Zenith El Primero is quite simply one of the most important chronographs in watchmaking history. I’ve previously mentioned before that chronographs have been around since the 19th century, but it wasn’t that long ago that automatic chronographs were introduced. It was only as recently as the 1960s that there was a push to invent an automatic chronograph and while Zenith can be considered the first, it wasn’t quite that straight forward.
The El Primero is a legend within its own right but there is a much debated story behind it. During the early 1960s there was a race on to see who could create the world’s first self-winding (automatic) chronograph. There were of course a few companies that shared an interest in claiming this technological breakthrough: Heuer/Buren-Hamilton/Breitling. However, there were a couple of silent watch manufactures working on this advance too: in the Far East was Seiko, who were busy working on their own version and then there was the company from Le Locle; Zenith. While there is a debate on who was first, there’s no doubt that Zenith were first to announce the El Primero, with three different references. The A386, the A384 and of course the model that is the basis for this revival, the A385.
What made the A385 truly standout was its smoked brown gradient dial with a vignette effect that blackens towards the edges and provides a striking sense of visual depth, as if the dial was domed. For this Chronomaster Revival piece, Zenith sought to recreate the same warm tones and gradient effect, almost indistinguishable from the original with its red chronograph central second hand and silvery-white chronograph counters.
The A385 Revival features stark white chronograph registers, with the sub dial at 6 o’clock noticeably smaller than those that sit pride of place at 3 and 9 o’clock. At 9 o’clock is the running seconds, with accumulated minutes at 3 and recorded hours down at 6 o’clock’. The base of the dial is an eye-catching bronze fumé dial, with a white minute track and tach-o-metre scale, which sits on the lower section of the pie-pan dial. The rhodium-plated hour markers are inlaid with faux SuperLuminova (a detail we’ll get back to). In between 4 and 5 o’clock is the date aperture, which is rather un-intrusive and doesn’t seem to unbalance the dial at all. The style of hands is in-keeping with those from the original A385 and featuring a thin black stripe down the centre, which is briefly interrupted by SuperLuminova.
The A384/5 case, which was re-released a couple of years ago now, is enjoying quite the renaissance and in 2020 we saw the addition of the iconic ladder bracelet. The 37mm tonneau shape of the A385 is emblematic of the era in which it was born, featuring multiple facets, curves and domed crystal, creating the required vintage-retro look, which has been perfectly distilled in this latest Zenith El Primero A385 revival.
The face of the case features a sunburst satin brushed finish, with the chamfered edge and angled lugs featuring a mirror polished finish. The pronounced pushers are also polished and quite wide, which actually lends to the comfort during actuation. The large fluted crown bears an embossed Zenith star logo. The case is waterproof up to 50 metres and turning the case over you’ll see the sapphire display case back, which offers a glimpse of the El Primero 400.
Furthermore, in-keeping with the retro theme, the Chronomaster Revival A385 is available in two options that could have come straight from 1969: The first is the steel “ladder” bracelet, a modern remake of the Gay Frères bracelets that became emblematic of the early El Primero watches. The second option is a light brown calf leather strap that will develop a unique patina with wear and time. Luckily for use we managed to get an example on the former and this does lend to the overall vintage look and feel of the watch. The bracelet has been meticulously recreated, with the feel and heft of the bracelet mirroring the original. Even the Zenith engraving on the clasp has been placed in the exact same location.
The Revival A385 houses Zenith’s El Primero chronograph calibre 400, which is capable of 36,000vph – allowing you to read the chronograph seconds to an accuracy of 1/10th of a second. As we’ve already mentioned Zenith won the race in announcing their self-winding chronograph movement first but even more interesting than that, it has seen very little in the way of modifications since then. Even when Rolex were tasked to find a self-winding chronograph movement that was slim enough to fit into the Daytona, the El Primero was the movement of choice; they even pared down its ridiculous beat rate to 28,000 vph. However, this high-beat rate has its advantages. Beating at 36,000 vph, allows the chronograph to provide a more accurate reading and also provides a smoother chronograph and running seconds sweeping hand.
The El Primero calibre 400 automatic has been beautifully finished and sports a rather industrious look, even though the oscillating weight bears the undulating “Côtes de Genève”. Looking beyond the weight, you’ll be able to see the standout golden gears, blued screws and just some of 278 components that makeup the calibre 400. Much of the cases slight profile is down to the movement, which measures a mere 30mm x 6.6mm. While this may not sound that slim, bear in mind this is an automatic chronograph that utilises a column wheel mechanism.
I have always been an admirer of the Zenith El Primero reference A385 and to know that it played such an important part in chronograph history is the icing on the cake. For the duration that I had the El Primero Revival A385 it was incredibly comfortable to wear and sat snuggly on the wrist. Even with my 7” wrists, at no point did the 37mm case look or feel too small.
The attention to detail that has been lavished on the dial doesn’t go unnoticed and the use of faux patina luminous, which can be a bit hit or miss, works on such a piece like this – it nicely blends in with the warm nature of the dial. The size of the case is perfect in my humble opinion and recreation of this vintage tonneau case is spot on, though it is only slight thicker than the original A385, but it is barely noticeable. I think where the whole package is only slightly let down is in the bracelet department.
Recreating a vintage style bracelet and getting it right is an art and those of you who have worn and own any vintage watches will most likely bemoan how flimsy they can feel. Modern bracelets are perhaps liked somewhat more because of their robust construction, that said, it would appear that Zenith have chosen to straddle a fine line between vintage and modern when it comes to their new take on the iconic ladder bracelet. It feels a lot lighter than I would’ve expected but it doesn’t feel flimsy, I was anticipating a little more heft, but it has a more vintage feel, and this is kind of a cool thing.
This Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Revival A385 is a gorgeous thing in my humble opinion – reviving one of Zenith’s most adored models perhaps comes at the most perfect time for the watch industry and even the brand itself. The dial is warm and inviting, while the tonneau case evokes a 70s design that isn’t too out of touch in these modern times. The Revival A385 appeals to the watch enthusiast who is mindful of the original A385 but doesn’t want to go through the rigmarole of having to search, find and then inspect to make sure everything is correct. It is no secret I love a good vintage timepiece and it is no different when it comes to the El Primero, and honestly the Chronomaster Revival A385 is a watch that I could definitely see myself wearing on a more permanent basis.
The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Revival A385, doesn’t appear to be limited like some past models and is priced at £6,700 on a strap and £7,100 on the bracelet. For more information on this new release, visit zenith-watches.com.